9 common breast cancer myths, debunked
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK and sadly, one in seven women will develop it during her lifetime. However, treatments and technology have come on in leaps and bounds over the years, which means that the survival rates of breast cancer are rapidly improving, too. Now, 78 per cent of people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer survive for ten or more years, almost doubling the survival rate of that in the 70s.
But although we’ve never been so well informed about the disease, unfounded media scare stories and urban myths have muddied the waters, meaning that we’re often faced with conflicting information. To help you sift fact from fiction, we’ve debunked some of the most common myths about breast cancer.
Myth #1 Screening isn’t worth it
Media coverage sometimes highlights the downsides of women undergoing unnecessary procedures after screening – for instance, if a result isn’t clear, it may lead to a woman having a biopsy – but there’s increasing evidence that it saves lives. It’s estimated that the NHS Breast Screening Programme saves 1400 lives each year in England alone. If you’re aged 50 to 70, you should be called for screening every three years, and, if you’re over 70, you can request screening at your local unit every three years.
Myth #2 Mammograms cause cancer
The ionising radiation used in X-rays can increase cancer risk by a tiny amount, but it’s insignificant compared to the benefits of breast cancer screening. The radiation you receive in the procedure is less than you’re exposed to in daily life and has no significant impact on breast cancer risk.
Myth #3 Sporadic screening is enough
Instead of waiting for an invitation to a screening, you should regularly check your own breasts once a month. You know your breasts better than anyone, so you’re more likely to catch early signs of breast cancer if you check yourself. If you notice a lump, that they’ve changed in size, or any other breast cancer symptoms like nipple inversion, discharge, or bleeding, you should see your GP.
Myth #4 Only women get breast cancer
In fact, men can develop breast cancer, too. Although male breast cancer is far rarer, around 370 cases of breast cancer in men are diagnosed in the UK each year.
Myth #5 Superfoods will save you
Hardly a week goes by without a headline proclaiming a new hero food that will eradicate cancer, be it broccoli, blueberries or the latest super spice. But the effect of diet on disease risk is very difficult to measure, so beware. Studies into ‘superfoods’ tend to isolate one active ingredient, in a lab, to prove its effects. This is different to how it behaves in the body, as part of a food, eaten with other foods. By all means, include them all – but as part of a healthy, balanced, colourful and varied diet, and not as a panacea.
Myth #6 Antiperspirant deodorant is dangerous
We’ve not seen convincing evidence to support claims linking aluminium chloride (found in antiperspirants and talcum powder) to breast cancer. Studies have proved too small, vague, flawed or implausible to affect the advice given to women. But if you feel happier with a product that doesn’t contain aluminium chloride, there are plenty of good options available.
Myth #7 Breast-feeding will slash your risk
Yes, it does offer some protection, as the longer you breast-feed and the more full-term pregnancies you have, the less time you’re exposed to oestrogen, which can stimulate breast cancer cells and cause them to grow. But the reduction in risk is, really, very slight. So don’t panic if you haven’t had children, or you weren’t able to breast-feed.
Myth #8 Underwired bras can cause breast cancer
Scare stories suggest that wearing bras with a wire can block the drainage of lymph fluid and increase cancer risk. However, only one scientific study has investigated this effect and found no significant difference between women who wore underwired bras and those who did not.
Myth #9 If you have breast cancer, you’ll need a mastectomy
Breast cancer treatment has moved on enormously in the past 20 years. Most women now don’t necessarily require a mastectomy. Depending on how advanced the cancer is, you might be able have local incision of the breast tissue and radiotherapy to remove affected cells instead.